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Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie is historical fiction and outlines the beginnings of the printing press and the power of the free press. Johan Gutenberg liberated mankind with the most important invention in our history, moveable type, the printing press that would bring and share the knowledge of the world with mankind. It wrested knowledge from the tyrannical church that dispensed its version of truth as it saw fit to control the people. The printing press created a middle class; it created a freedom to people not previously known. It provided a way for man to share information in mass quantities and cheaply. The first book Gutenberg printed was the Bible. Heretofore the people were told the contents of the Bible by the church. They didn’t have the primary source in their hands; they received it in secondary and tertiary methods, not the same as having the primary source in hand. Gutenberg took that primary source and distributed it to the people, thus taking the power away from Rome and giving it to the people. Some believe that this may have led to the Reformation. The printing press changed the balance of power in the world forever. And now we have a new president who is behaving like those tyrants who preceded the printing press.
I had grown up hearing the phrase, “Power to he who owned the press.” That was the cry of every printer in young America especially Thomas Paine and Ben Franklin. Without them and other brave pamphleteers, America might not be. Within a short time newspapers were prolific in every city and were the way in which the masses learned about their society. “The power of the press” was a major force in the development of CyberEnglish since every student had a webpage and was like those early pamphleteers.
I find it ironic in a new age of information dispersal, in an educated country, we have whittled down the former avalanche of information into a mere 140 characters, we call Twitter, the bane of the intelligent and intellectual world. Gutenberg would be ashamed of us as he sees the next leader of America take us back to the dark days of illiteracy that greeted Peter Schoeffer when he returned home to begin his adventure with Gutenberg as the printing press was invented and provided for the advancement of mankind and education.
Twitter is undoing all of that and we have already seen the results of the dumbing down of America. We now have a president who wants to consolidate power, runs from the press, limits his communication to 140 characters, and has put us back into the dark ages, a dreaded period we read about and may find ourselves living in. Are we seeing a renewed period we will call our Inquisition in America with this new president? The newest craze is fake news. With the Internet we have an active readership where reader and writer are interacting like no other media before. It is another brave new world, one in which we all have to learn, to learn to be more vigilant and more skeptical until we have done our own research. Trusting certain news without verifying is as bad if not worse than not knowing. Being a citizen now takes on more work and some just don’t seem up to it or want to be responsible. For some it is just fun and/or moneymaking as we have discovered especially in the new world of fake news. Power to he who owns the press takes on a whole new meaning today.
Tyrannical leaders and their minions have always castigated the press, we merely need to review our history books, before they are burned. The press is merely the messenger, so don’t kill the messenger; sound out the message, research the message, then you will know the truth, if you dare face it. Tyranny prospers in a sea of ignorance and America has become that sea of ignorance and denial for our new president.
The ironic twist in this novel is that the father, Johann Fust, Gutenberg’s main and only backer, is trying to convince the son about the future of printing. The son has just become an important scribe in the university of Paris when his father calls him home to Mainz, Germany, to meet a man, Gutenberg. Peter is skeptical about this new invention and its seemingly inferior copy to a well-crafted manuscript. “Not yet. His father’s nostrils flared. “Not yet – but give it time. You can’t imagine it, perhaps, but I can. Books everywhere, and costing less than manuscripts – in quantities that simply stun the mind. Imagine how the world would look if anyone could buy one!” It is the son who argues for the past and the father for the future. Today, it is the youth who go from computer app to computer app and through constant upgrades while the elders are happy with flip phones and books. Our youth are leading us backwards in intellectual curiosity and development with the use of Twitter. We need more than 140 characters. And we need the truth, facts borne out, and more heady research that Twitter forgets about and allows the users to ignore like the story of the Emperors New Clothes.
In the beginning God created heaven and earth. We all know how it begins, but how the first Bible by Gutenberg was begun is an interesting story that revolves around the usual intrigue, politics, and backstabbing associated with the church in the 1450’s. The beginning of printing the Bible came about because they couldn’t get the agreed upon missives from the archbishop. They had all the supplies and nothing to print. Then they came upon the Bible, because it was the word of God and couldn’t be changed by man. Through trial and error they stumbled through the first pages and learned about printing by doing. I learned printing by doing it in college. I made books. I wrote the poetry, chose the paper, the ink, the type, and printed the pages on a hand press. I chose the method of binding the book and did that. I made five books of poetry and sold three of them. That was the beginning for me and for CyberEnglish. I relished the power I had just acquired. While reading the exploits of Gutenberg and his cohorts, I share in their joy, their failures, and their successes. I feel a kinship with them as they labored over their press.
All of the work had to be done in secrecy. Collecting that amount of hide, paper, ink, metals for the type used strategies common to armies. In addition to this stealth, Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Rome fell to Muslim armies and Pope Nicholas V waged a Crusade that threatened the taking of men and other valuable resources. The whole undertaking of printing the Bible was tension filled and anxiety ridden. But press on the printers did. When they finally set out to the Frankfurt fair, four years after they started the Bible, to sell the Bible they were apprehensive. But in short order all books were sold and the chains of man had been taken off and he was freed by the invention of Johann Gutenberg.
Today we take for granted the printed word. We have seen how it has been used to manipulate man, to educate man, to enrich man; and yet today the technology has gone in another direction and we have to be sure to always consider the source of what we read. The Bible was the word of God and by using it that was Gutenberg’s genius for introducing the printing press. Just because it is written doesn’t mean it’s fact. Trust but verify.